11 January 2010

Half Magic and History

On Friday, in an ongoing discussion of how the fantastic elements of The Storm in the Barn affect its status as historical fiction, I compared the book to another fantasy set in a historic period, Edward Eager’s Half Magic.

Monica Edinger responded:

while Edgar Eager does indeed set his tale in the early years of the 20th century, I don’t see that as particularly significant as far as the story goes.
The story of children finding a token that grants wishes, getting in some mild troubles, making their lives a little better, and then giving up that magic could indeed occur in any era. Eager unabashedly borrowed from E. Nesbit’s fantasy novels, just as Laurel Snyder borrowed a lot from Eager’s for her recent contemporary fantasy Any Which Wall.

However, it was clearly important for Eager’s storytelling enterprise that he chose a historical setting. The very first line of the book tells us that its events happened “about thirty years ago,” or in the mid-1920s. (Half Magic was published in 1954.) The narrator highlights period details for us, such as a steam-puffing fire engine (“the way it used to do in those days”) and silent films (“for in those days movies did not talk”).

Though the technology in Half Magic might seem quaint to the readers of 1954, it is nonetheless on the march. Eager even intertwines a new-fangled machine and magic when one of the family’s first wishes brings on Mr. Smith in his automobile. Later the narrator reminds us: “everyone did not own a motor car in those days.”

At another point (page 98, to be exact), Eager’s narrator draws a line in the kids’ lives between the period before they found the magic coin and the period afterward:
Meanwhile today they would have a good old-fashioned day out, the kind of day that had seemed the height of excitement to them, back in the time before the charm had crossed their path. They would put all their allowances together, go downtown on the street car and spend the day, have lunch and see a movie.
This passage makes sure we see change happening in the characters’ lives.

Thus, though the plot of Half Magic has nothing to do with the historical events for which we remember the mid-1920s (which are…? Anyone? Anyone?), it nonetheless keeps reminding its readers that:
  • This story takes place decades before their time.
  • Time is always passing, and life is always changing.
In fact, Half Magic takes place late in Eager’s own childhood—he was born in 1911. The pleasures he describes are undoubtedly the pleasures he remembered as he wrote the novel, his first for children. And foremost among those remembered pleasures are the books he’d read as a boy, particularly Nesbit’s fantasies. [CORRECTION: Although Eager set Half Magic in the period of his childhood, he didn’t discover Nesbit’s books until he was a young father.]

Nesbit published those tales starting in 1902, so they were up to two decades old when Eager read them. He obviously enjoyed those books despite their somewhat unfamiliar setting, and his own antiquated setting assures readers that they can enjoy adventures occurring decades before their own time as well. Indeed, we might even suspect that Eager designed Half Magic to take readers about halfway back to Nesbit.

Does its historical setting and historical themes make Half Magic historical fiction? Not in the sense that reading it immerses us in the lives of Americans in the past. It couldn’t because those people never had wish-granting coins, just speculative stocks. The supernatural elements that steer Half Magic’s plot make it a fantasy set in the 1920s.

TOMORROW: Back to The Storm in the Barn.


Monica Edinger said...

I'm with you so far! We'll see tomorrow, though.

Wendy said...

I LOVED this analysis of Half Magic, thank you. I'd never stopped to wonder why Eager set this in the past; when I read Monica's post it made me wonder whether he had planned from the beginning to have the Half Magic kids intersect with their own future children (which necessitates that Half Magic take place in the past, of course).

Another thing I started wondering about: maybe Eager felt he needed to set his story in a time when kids were a little more old-fashioned than his own, and it was only after he'd done a little more writing that he figured out how to write contemporary children who weren't above believing in magic.

J. L. Bell said...

Half Magic was Eager’s first book, and I wonder if he wrote it only half planning to find a publisher, or half thinking that it would be the only children’s book he’d ever write. If Eager was thinking along either of those lines, then the project might have been particularly personal, and he preferred to write the time of about his own childhood rather than to try to connect with the children of the 1950s.